Nu Perera – Ph.D. candidate, University of Oklahoma

Pronouns: she/her

Race/ethnicity that you identify with:  Sri Lankan

Where were you born and where did you grow up?  Central Sri Lanka

Education: 3rd year of Ph.D. program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Dream Job:  Ornithology researcher

Find her at: nuperera.oucreate.com

How did you get interested in biology/ecology/conservation?  I grew up in Sri Lanka, a tropical island where I developed a love for the outdoors. From my childhood, I loved spending time outdoors, but I never expected to be in Biology until I was in high school.

Do you have one person who was influential in your choice to study biology/ecology?  Yes, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA). In our senior year of college, we had to do an independent research as a credit requirement. I first started a project on water quality assessment using microscopic organisms. While I was working on the project, I realized that I didn’t like it as I expected. Then I talked about it with one of the GTAs. He was working with birds back then. He then suggested me a project on sunbirds, sunbirds are old world relatives of hummingbirds. I started watching birds and I fell in love with it. I started studying about birds and currently I’m in my PhD focusing on bird behaviors.

Are you a first in your family to attend college? Did your family expect you to attend college?  Yes, my brother and I were first in family to attend college. My parents provided everything I can ask for when I was a kid. They supported me in every way to be successful. The education system is different in Sri Lanka than in US. We have an examination by the end of high school. Those who get high scores get to go to public colleges with free education. My parents encouraged me to do my best in high school examination and I was lucky enough to get into a public college.

Do you feel that you see people like you in your future career?  Did that impact your choice?  Yes, I have seen women in science and that inspired me to be in science. Since I have seen women in science, I was never afraid of following my dreams, I knew I can achieve my dreams and goals.

What kind of research have you been involved in? My first avain research was on foraging behaviors of sunbirds. I observed two species of sunbirds for this project. For my masters project, I studied on wintering Dark-eyed Juncos and American tree sparrows in Wichita, KS. For my PhD dissertation, I’m working on few different projects. When I joined Jeremy Ross’s lab, the lab already had a NSF grant to to study wintering grassland birds. I piggy-backed on the project and I was able to gather data for social network structures of wintering Chestnut-collared longspurs in Oklahoma. We used radio telemetry to gather data. Then we extended our project to use automated radio telemetry. We have installed infrastructure for Motus Wildlife tracking system to track Chestnut-collared Longspurs in Oklahoma. We are using solar-powered radio transmitters called “LifeTags” which remain operational for years. This is our on going project in the lab. For one of my dissertation chapters, I had planned on working on an endemic species in Sri Lanka. But I was unable to go to Sri Lanka for my fieldwork due to covid. I still have not discarded my thoughts on that project. I have loved each of these projects equally. Each project had different things I love about.

Tell us about a memorable day in the field.  For our Chestnut-collared Longspur project last year, we caught birds after last light at Wichita mountains. One evening after catcing birds, we walked towards the truck with our headlamps. While we were walking, we heard bison running in a wild stampede close to us. Suddenly bison stopped and started running towards us. We could only see their eyes from our headlamps. We ran as fast as we could. Since it was dark and we could not see anything, we had no idea where we were running. After a short while, bison stopped chasing us and they changed their direction. That was the sacriest moment I had in my life. When I think of that moment now, I am happy that we all survived and it was a good adventure.

What is your favorite organism?  Elephant, because they are magnificent! They are intelligent creatures with interesting behaviors. I have seen hundreds of wild elephants when I was in Sri Lanka and I never get tired of watching them.

What topic in biology/ecology fascinates you the most?  Animal behavior

What has been the most challenging about becoming a field biologist?  I grew up in a tropical country where I had zero experience with winter weather. When I started my masters project, adapting to winter fieldwork was the most challenging thing I had to overcome. I love winter fieldwork now, but I had to learn it the hard way.

What is on your biology/ecology “bucket list”?  South Africa, I would love to see wild lions, zebras, cheetahs and ostriches.

What is your favorite natural area in Oklahoma to visit? Wichita mountains is one of my favorite natural areas in Oklahoma.  It’s not a long drive from Norman, which makes it easy to get there.  Sunsets at the Wichitas are perfect.

Besides studying birds, what else do you love to do?  Tennis has been a huge part of my life since college and I absolutely love it. Apart from tennis, I also like running outdoors. Another thing I picked up during pandemic is my passion for baking and decorating cakes. It’s a really fun thing to decorate cakes.